Moral and civic education: an education in question

Nov 3, 2020 by

Pierre Kahn –

It was following a moral and civic education (EMC) course on freedom of expression, where he had worked with his students from caricatures, including those of Muhammad published in Charlie Hebdo , that Samuel Paty , professor of history and geography in the Paris region, was brutally murdered on October 16, 2020, near his college, in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. This tragic event thus focused media attention on the nature of this teaching: what does it consist of? How long has it been around? What are its purposes? Does it particularly expose teachers? Are they sufficiently trained to ensure it?

It should first be noted that moral and civic education is part of an ancient tradition, and even an original one, insofar as the concern for “moral and civic instruction” (this was then the official title of such teaching) has existed since the beginnings of the republican school.

Carried by Jules Ferry, the law of March 28, 1882 – in addition to the obligation of instruction which it imposes for all children up to 13 years of age – made primary school secular by replacing “moral and religious instruction” (which had existed since the Guizot law of 1833) by “moral and civic instruction”: “civic” replaced religion, the training of republican citizens that of believers. “The first duty of a republic is to make republicans; and one does not make a republican as one makes a Catholic ”declared in 1903 Ferdinand Buisson, a great figure of the school of the Republic, at the congress of the radical-socialist party.

New for the 2015 academic year

Through different names, which are certainly far from being meaningless, this type of education (which in Jules Ferry’s time was only introduced for primary school, but was from the Liberation in 1945 , extended to all levels of education) has hardly ever ceased to exist since then.

Entitled “moral and civic instruction” or “moral and civic education”, retaining or removing the reference to morality, possibly transformed into “initiation into economic and social life” (for colleges in 1977) or even “civic and legal education and social “(for high schools, in 1999), it has become” moral and civic education “, from preparatory courses to final high school classes, by the will of Vincent Peillon , Minister of National Education of the first government resulting from the election of François Hollande in 2012.

Returning to the original inspiration of the republican project, drawing in particular from the source of the thought of Ferdinand Buisson, giving breath and life to this teaching, such was the explicit intention of Vincent Peillon. But if the minister wanted to give it life and breath again, it was because its legitimacy had lost its obviousness with families and teachers.

From this viewpoint, EMC, which has been included in the programs from the re-entry 2015, represents a novelty in the educational landscape of the end of XX th century and beginning of the XXI th century. New, it is first of all by its title: the reference in the programs to “morality” had been abandoned since the 1960s (in 1961 in college, in 1965 in high schools and in 1969 in primary school, her chosen place, however, from which she had disappeared with civic education itself).

If civic education returned fairly quickly to the programs, in 1985, morality did not benefit from this return until 2008 for primary school (Darcos programs) and, above all, before Peillon promoted it again in 2012. The first novelty of the EMC is therefore this: civic education is not only civic. Morality itself, designated by name as such, becomes, or becomes again, an object of teaching; it is constitutively integrated into an education which must therefore fully assume its normative dimension.

This means, for example, that an EMC lesson on human rights cannot be reduced to transmitting a certain amount of knowledge (historical, legal, philosophical, etc.) on these rights. It must try to make understand its value and to arouse in the pupils a adhesion. This is of course also the case for a lesson on freedom of expression, and it is therefore understandable that teachers can, in their CME classes, expose themselves (and sometimes self-censor), when ‘they are called upon to perform them in front of pupils who identify, for religious or ideological reasons, with opposing values.

The EMC facing the pluralism of values?

This refers to the major problem facing the EMC today: how to make the transmission of common values ​​compatible with the moral, religious and philosophical pluralism that a democratic society recognizes as legitimate? The contemporary moral universe has become plural , and therefore problematic. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur writes, “we do not live in a global consensus of values ​​that are like fixed stars”. From this point of view, the difference is considerable between the current moral and civic education (EMC) and the moral and civic instruction of the republican school of the origins.

In his famous “letter to teachers” of 1883, Jules Ferry could bet on the possibility of teaching a common morality independent of religions (but not contrary to them), because the moral and cultural homogeneity then existing made this bet reasonable. It is this homogeneity which seems to be lacking today and which places moral and civic education in a delicate situation, when its legitimacy is no longer necessarily recognized by all students and families.

How, under these conditions, to further establish this legitimacy? Two conditions seem minimally required. The first condition is to prevent the EMC from being the place of an overly dogmatic transmission. To avoid, in other words, the reconstitution of the “republican catechisms” which flourished in the second half of the XIX E  century. The EMC was born out of Vincent Peillon’s desire to promote what he first called “secular morality”, which claimed nothing less, he said , than teaching “good and evil, the just and the unjust.

As it was thus formulated, this project was hardly likely to take into account the plurality of values. Replacing the reference to “secular morality” by “moral and civic education”, that is to say by a title less heavily loaded with moralism, could only further encourage this consideration.

The EMC has a chance to be educational only if it allows to define in class a space of discussion within which the pupils are brought to be able to justify in a reasoned and argued way their moral and civic preferences and if they thus allows, to speak again like Paul Ricoeur, to be able to orient oneself in a problematic universe.

Hence the importance, for moral and civic education, of going through the mediation of knowledge (historical, literary, scientific, etc.): moral and civic “education” is something other than a simple moral “education” and civic. Hence also the importance, for such teaching to have as educational spring devices making effective and profitable this space of discussion (institution of advice, regulated debates, discussion with philosophical aim, plays of roles…). Of course, this presupposes specific training for teachers, and perhaps this is one of the weaknesses that EMC still suffers from today.

The second condition to which the EMC must adhere is to think of itself as an education for all. It should not be understood as a kind of “combat” teaching, especially directed against fundamentalist ideologies. It is not a teaching specifically intended for ghettoized urban areas or what a bookstore success in 2012 called “the lost territories of the Republic”.

The transmission of the “values ​​of the Republic” on which the Ministry of National Education insisted after the 2015 attacks has not always succeeded, given the very circumstances which have motivated this insistence, in avoiding ambiguity. Learning to reflect in a reasoned, critical and educated way on beliefs and prejudices, which are so often peculiar to childhood, is a general educational goal. It is this general purpose that justifies the presence of the EMC in national programs.

Author Bio: Pierre Kahn is University Professor Emeritus at the University of Caen Normandie

Source: Moral and civic education: an education in question – World leading higher education information and services

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